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Ben Toff on Americans’ news consumption — from ‘avoiders’ to embracers

Assistant Professor Ben Toff
University of Minnesota/Lisa Miller
Assistant Professor Ben Toff believes that part of what drives the heavy news users is the social benefit that flows from membership in such informal communities. And those folks vote.

This is the fourth of five pieces in an occasional series, derived from recent interviews with scholars at the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts. 

I hope it’s not just because I’m a journalist, but it’s hard for me to picture a healthy democracy without a healthy journalistic culture. Luckily, there is probably more great journalism going on now than ever. Also more terrible journalism, false journalism, biased journalism.

But the work of Ben Toff, an assistant professor at the U of M’s Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication, raises a troubling question: How much difference does good or bad journalism make if people don’t want to read, watch or listen to it?

One of Toff’s recent research interests has been a group he calls “news avoiders,” people who actually go out of their way to NOT pay attention, and others who don’t go out of their way, but just consume little or no news as part of their lives.

Toff is another of the U of M scholars, whose specialties and research shed some light on the health of our democracy, whom I interviewed earlier this year for a piece for the magazine of the U of M’s College of Liberal Arts. When I interviewed Toff, he was headed to Iowa to study “news avoiders” there and compare notes with colleagues studying the same phenomenon in Britain and Spain.

Extreme ‘avoiders’: 2 to 8 percent of the public

The extreme “avoiders” are a relatively small group, between 2 and 8 percent of the public, he estimates. Unsurprisingly, news avoiders are less likely to vote, and less likely able to describe their political views. Avoiders who do vote say they tend to base their vote on information they get from family members they trust, or from social media.

He told me that another type of modern young American hardly ever reads, watches or listens to traditional new sources, but just “googles” around the internet if they want to know about something in the state, nation or world (which is a reminder of how powerful those search engines have become in the 21st-century news picture).

A much bigger group, Toff said, comprising roughly 38 percent of the U.S. public, are not strictly news avoiders but say that they don’t follow the news closely. And the reasons they give are similar to the extreme avoiders. The news is “too negative,” “frustrating,” “annoying.”

‘A community of news users’

On the flip side, to someone committed to being well informed, the current access to information is “amazing,” Toff said. Those folks tend to belong what he called a “community of news users.” (I suspect most MinnPost readers would be in this category.)

Toff believes that part of what drives the heavy news users is the social benefit that flows from membership in such informal communities. And those folks vote. It’s well established, for example, that newspaper readers vote at high rates, although newspaper readership is shrinking.

So how do these wide differences in news consumption relate to the health of a society’s democracy? I asked. Toff replied:

“If we’re fine with a smaller group of highly engaged people being the only ones that vote, that’s one thing. But if we want to live in a system where our democracy is responsive to the wide range of the public, whether they are particularly engaged, we need to worry about these trends.”

I asked Toff about what is sometimes called the “Fox-MSNBC effect,” the modern phenomenon where right-leaning viewers watch Fox, with its lineup of conservative stars led by Sean Hannity, and liberal viewers more likely tune in to analyst Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. I’ve worried that we are dividing into separate worlds, across ideological lines, where we don’t have even a basic set of facts in common. Toff convinced me that I’m exaggerating that threat. He said:

“It’s actually a small number of people who get most of their news from partisan media. Most people don’t follow much news about politics generally. Pew studies show that most people who rely on TV for news get it from their local network stations, which are much less partisan. Most people are not that political, and most of the news they consume is not political news.

“So the concern is not about average people. The concern is more valid about the highly engaged political class. Activists, politicians, the donor groups do fall into that category. Perhaps that makes those partisan sources more influential than you might think just based on the ratings, which aren’t that high. So it’s complicated to evaluate the impact of the Fox-MSNBC phenomenon.

“But I do have concerns about whether our news environment is all that conducive to creating an electorate of people who actually hear the other side, can think through complicated political debates and issues, and understand a variety of different perspective.”

Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 09/23/2019 - 11:08 am.

    I have been a news junkie since I was a kid. I do not know what I have come to detest more, Fox news or CNN/MSNBC/NYT/WAPO – the former, right wing propaganda, the latter, “center”, Mockingbird propaganda for all things American Empire. None of these question eternal war profiteering ever justifying itself, nor corporate capture of government and media, nor the big banks, nor billionaires generally. NPR I have long called soft propaganda for the liberal set, excusing all of the above on the “center” side.

    It has become near impossible to reason with anyone who takes these media outlets seriously. Most people don’t hear what I say, they project on to me their beliefs about the Other; because I am not repeating their favored propaganda, I am obviously an agent of the other.

    Divide and conquer. Who cares about ecological devastation, epic income inequality, systemic toxicity, actual political powerlessness – there are those others to hate….

    That said, Minnpost I have come to appreciate for it’s local focus, though it is not very seriously questioning of corporate, bank and billionaire power, or eternal growth of war or eternal growth of economics on a finite planet.

    • Submitted by Solly Johnson on 09/23/2019 - 05:51 pm.

      The New York Times and Washington Post have promoted virtually every war in which the USA has been involved and are tied to the military/industrial complex. Also, neither had information regarding the findings of William Binney, one of the top minds at the NSA, who revealed that Russiagate was a hoax.

      • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 09/24/2019 - 10:59 am.

        SJ, your W Binney has been out of the Government business since 2001! Seems Wikipedia has him a “FOX” guy and being manipulated by the Russians. Not a good source to quote in a discussion about trustworthy news.

        • Submitted by Solly Johnson on 09/24/2019 - 02:21 pm.

          Wikipedia is not the most reliable source to quote. To say he is manipulated by the Russians is absurd.

          • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 09/25/2019 - 09:57 pm.

            And the better source is what, FOX? Guess we get to chose our legitimacy, kind of like listening to a Trump speech. ,

        • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 09/25/2019 - 08:14 am.

          While “hoax” may be a too strong word for Russiagate, collusion by the Hillary campaign, DNC, corporate media and the Intelligence community is not. The Intelligence community, bent on making the world safe for banks, corporations and billionaires, ever invested in war profiteering, has Russia as the pinnacle in regime-change doctrine.

          Democrats have parroted the language of the Intelligence community, as a way to refuse to look at Dem policy, namely identity politiking immigrant, minority and women’s grievances against the white working class, while otherwise ignoring working people’s economic concerns in the embrace of all things corporate and global.

          Meanwhile the Washington establishment plus big tech have worked together, less to shut out Russia, than putting crimps on independent media in this country questioning anything from eternal war/Russiagate, to economics to ecology, in any way that does not square with American imperial designs.

          If Binney has walked back some of his language it is probably because he is tired of being called a Putinstooge by Dems with no sense of history.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/24/2019 - 11:15 am.

        Binney has back-tracked on the hoax allegation.

    • Submitted by Kyle Anderson on 09/23/2019 - 09:41 pm.

      You should try listening to Democracy Now! I download the podcast every day and I just finished listening to an insightful interview with Bill McKibben on the Climate Crisis. They are definitely not afraid to attack the status quo on that show. KFAI broadcasts this program every day I think at noon. Even though I only listen to the audio version I believe that the TV version is available each day on the Democracy Now! website.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/23/2019 - 11:46 am.

    A piece well worth reading. My 2¢ is that, unless it’s purposely sought after, it’s unlikely that an average news consumer is going to hear, read or see on TV something that approaches “balance,” or, more accurately, “fairness.” I don’t personally think there is – or has ever been – “objective” news reporting. We’re all creatures of our time and place, and while the best reporters and writers make a genuine effort to be fair – which isn’t at all the same thing as presenting both (or multiple) sides equally – we / they can’t help but be influenced by values and opinions they’ve been taught throughout their lives.

    “Balance” is a judgment call, and there’s not likely to be much consensus nowadays as to what its ingredients are. My personal take is that, for example, little time needs to be devoted to the latest lie(s) from the President, who has a lengthy and well-documented history of making statements that are patently not true. Opposing politicians occasionally play fast and loose with the facts, as well, and while shading the truth to favor one’s own view is pretty much standard procedure in politics (and life), outright lies ought to be presented as such.

    Usually, they’re not. I’ve yet to see a local network affiliate anchor call the President’s lies out for what they are, and over the past generation, local network affiliates have generally made themselves irrelevant when the story to be covered is both national and political. Instead, we see the latest local example of good works, or at least well-intended works, or some sort of emotional appeal involving the victims of a crime, or their grieving relatives. Heartstrings are not being plucked in those instances, they’re shamelessly ripped from their moorings by blatant appeals to emotion by the reporter, encouraged by station management because, apparently, that’s the stuff that will boost ratings. Since TV is a visual medium, we’ll see multiple videos of hurricanes, oil well explosions, or dashcam shots of a horrific automobile crash before we’ll see even a mention of the latest political dishonesty, especially if that dishonesty involves an officeholder whose political affiliation matches that of station ownership.

    I have a Twin Cities relative who goes out of her way NOT to be a news consumer. She finds the news depressing (as do I, from time to time), and to avoid those negative feelings, her approach is often to pretend there isn’t any news at all. It’s mostly unsuccessful, and she ends up hearing news stories 2nd and 3rd-hand from colleagues at work, neighbors, etc., which means she encounters the biases and informational voids of those she listens to – just like the rest of us – except that no attempt is made to temper those biases, nor to fill in those informational voids. Alas, she often fulfills that stereotype beloved by the right wing, the bigoted liberal, in much the same way that your Uncle Olaf (this IS Minnesota, after all) fills that similar stereotype beloved by liberals, of the crazed or ignorant (or both) right-winger.

    There is so much information – and falsehood – available through print and electronic media now that it’s difficult for even a dedicated news junkie to keep up. Life-long habit – a retired high school social studies teacher – keeps me trying to stay current with the news, but I have other interests as well, so I’m not glued to a TV or computer screen as much as some apparently are, but I’d guess my news-gathering habits are more than average, for better or worse.

  3. Submitted by John Webster on 09/23/2019 - 12:03 pm.

    I’ve followed news closely for 40+ years and my take is that journalism on the whole has seriously declined in quality, especially political journalism which is overwhelmingly partisan. However, there are two positives that somewhat mitigate this downward slide:

    (1) As Mr. Toff notes, only a small percentage – low single digits – gets most of their news from partisan outlets like Fox, MSNBC, and CNN (which he didn’t mention). I long ago lost count of all the laments that Fox has a large influence on most Republican voters. It doesn’t because too few people watch Fox or any other partisan TV information source.

    (2) This is a golden age for anyone who wants to be well-informed. Online news and analysis makes easily available a wealth of detailed information from a wide variety of perspectives. Anyone who mentally resides in an ideological bubble does so by choice. High school teachers of history and civics should make a point of exposing students to this online treasure trove that can be accessed after graduation.

  4. Submitted by Misty Martin on 09/23/2019 - 12:14 pm.

    I appreciate MinnPost for its varied news articles, and I appreciate you, Eric. If President Trump actually did become a zebra who could change his stripes, I believe you would admit it, and write about it. We’ll see – time will tell.

    I also enjoy the New York Times, and especially journalist, Nicholas Kristoff, who writes so deeply from his heart about so many things affecting our world today. Today’s prize goes to David Leonhardt though who wrote so effectively about our dear P.O.T.U.S.

    I occasionally listen to Fox News, although I get my fill of it from friends and family. I do listen to the world news, whether it’s ABC, CBS, NBC, but maybe not on a regular basis. When I was MUCH younger, I guess I could have fit in the “avoider” group, but now that I am MUCH older, and especially since the last presidential election, I feel the need to keep informed. I get sick of hearing about “Fake News” which is all the religious crowd seems to talk about. So many stories about the President have facts that one can check upon from different sources – how that amounts to “Fake News” is simply beyond me.

  5. Submitted by Brian Simon on 09/23/2019 - 12:43 pm.

    I question tbe assertion that we’re in a golden age of journalism. My perception is that there are fewer perspectives in journalism. I find it difficult to find sources that are new to me, or perspectives from a different vantage point. In particular, google news’ algorith seems to identify my interests & suggests content for me based on what I’ve already read. I want it to suggest content that I haven’t read.

    I find that if I pickup a physical newspaper or magazine I will read more diverse content than if I read online. The online sources tend to feed me more of the same; physical media is more diverse – I find myself reading stories I would not have ‘clicked on’ online.

  6. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 09/24/2019 - 11:09 am.

    Suspect that the news is as good if not significantly better today than it was 50 years ago. A lot more perspectives and sources than 50 years ago. Yes, I was a newspaper boy if they still exist back in the early 60’s, thus I always ended up with a free newspaper, which I read way back then. For those folks that choose to not follow the news, or lack the curiosity to investigate, “ignorance is bliss” their choice. And it is hard to educate folks that chose to be ignorant. Suspect some of these folks ignore all kinds of other things as well, to hard for them to face the real not always pleasant music of life, easier to blame someone else when the chickens come home to roost. .

  7. Submitted by ian wade on 09/24/2019 - 11:51 am.

    I’d give anything to see what Mike Wallace would have done with this administration.

  8. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 09/25/2019 - 08:12 am.

    Are the totality of all Trump mis-adventures more egregious or less egregious than Nixon and Watergate? Trump certainly wins on volume, Nixon may be in the lead on severity. But, Trump is charging hard with his Ukrainian meddling for severity.

    If media reporting drove the near unanimous, bi-partisan consensus that Nixon had to go and the hyper partisan Trump divide that he must go or must stay, what has changed?

    Was Nixon railroaded by “liberal media bias”? I would say no: history has confirmed he was definitely guilty of impeachable offenses and the system worked as it should.

    Leaving me with the conclusion if the Trump Presidency existed in a 1970 media world he would be in dire shape with defenders fleeing the scene right and left.

    What is his saving grace? Possibly a media complex that has the likes of Sean Hannity drawing a $36,000,000 annual salary enabled in large part by a partnership with the President. Who is going to give up that gig in the name of journalistic integrity? And you can tell me he is a commentator not a journalist; but, even a commentator should own a concept of the importance of truth. The Ukrainian transcript could come out and confirm everything and Hannity will find a way to deny wrong doing.

    Sean should tell us how he would have spun the 17 minute gap and Nixon’s smoking gun admission. Where was Sean when Dick really needed him? (in the 8th grade actually).

  9. Submitted by Charles Holtman on 09/25/2019 - 10:14 am.

    Anyone in the field of mass communications who uses or accepts the lazy Both Siderist phrase “Fox-MSNBC phenomenon” places his analytical credentials in great doubt.

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